Looks good on paper?

As prospective employees become more deceitful in their CVs and job applications, HR must become more rigorous in checking the facts.

Recent newspaper headlines have turned the spotlight on the issue of checking employees’ pasts. They include revelations about child-killer Ian Huntley getting a job as a school caretaker despite police knowledge of previous criminal charges, and Daily Mirror reporter Ryan Perry bluffing his way into Buckingham Palace as a footman.

This article looks at two areas where checking that candidates really are who they say they are is all important: screening for false information in job applications, and employing overseas workers.

Lies, lies and more lies

One in seven job applicants lies, conceals, or omits significant information in their CVs, according to a survey by employee screening firm Zephon, a subsidiary of The Risk Advisory Group (TRAG).

More than half the CVs submitted by candidates in 2002 contained lies or inaccuracies, ranging from gaps in employment histories to fraud committed against previous employers, and falsified qualifications.

The landmark case of Dubai Aluminium v Salaam and others, which ended at the end of 2002, has also fuelled concerns over employing dishonest staff. The case concerned an elaborate $50m fraud perpetrated on Dubai Aluminium through a series of bogus consultancy agreements.

In the past, judges have taken the view that employers are only liable for employees’ acts within the ordinary scope of their employment. But in this case, the House of Lords ruled that an innocent employer can be vicariously liable to third parties for the dishonest acts of its staff, as long as the acts are carried out in the ordinary course of business.

Even HR professionals lie on their CVs. Nine per cent admit to lying on their CV when applying for a job, according to another survey by publisher Reed Business Information. Nine per cent of departmental heads, 9 per cent of managers and 8 per cent of staff admitted to a spot of deceit. The figure was 10 per cent in the banking sector, and 11 per cent in IT. Of those that owned up, 32 per cent said they had lied about experience, 30 per cent about salary and 16 per cent about academic qualifications – although these figures were lower than those among other professions.

The difficulty seems to come in part from candidates being confused about the difference between what is acceptable self-presentation, and deliberate distortion. TRAG believes the tough economic climate is also playing a part, making candidates more desperate to secure new jobs. Others blame changes in social culture, with ‘spin’ having become the norm.

Putting well-thought out employee screening policies and practices in place will help employers to spot discrepancies and reduce the risk of employing a true fraudster. About two-thirds of people who have perpetrated fraud against their company had so-called ‘red flags’ in their career histories, which TRAG believes could have been exposed through screening.

Typical embellishments unearthed by investigations include inflating job titles and pretending to have been a global rather than regional director. It is also common to find gaps in employment history, which people have attempted to cover by falsifying employment dates.

Forging academic qualifications has also become much easier with the advent of sophisticated desktop computer equipment that allows applicants to create entire education histories, including detailed records of graduate or postgraduate studies at leading universities. And phoney diplomas and university degrees can be readily bought via the internet from ‘degree mills’ operating in the US.

Illegal workers

The issue of illegal working is currently the subject of much media attention, and one that employers need to urgently address. Any organisation employing someone illegally faces a fine of £5,000 per worker under the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996.

Organisations employing large numbers of temporary and casual workers, such as those in the hospitality and retail sectors, are finding themselves particularly swamped with applications from asylum seekers, and they are finding it hard to identify which documents are valid.

The Government recently announced an amnesty for illegal staff from Eastern European EU accession states if they join its employment register, coming into force on 1 May 2004.

Forged identity documents, such as passports, are becoming increasingly convincing, even to the police and hard-pushed immigration officers, let alone the unsuspecting employer. For as little as £600 on the black market, terrorists or illegal immigrants can buy a forged passport, complete with watermarks, visa stamps and safeguards using ultraviolet ink, which is typically considered to be very hard to obtain.

The Home Office estimates that only one in 10 forged documents used to gain illegal entry into the UK is ever discovered. And it only takes a forged passport and letter from an employer for someone to obtain a national insurance number to present to a bona fide employer.

But if employers need to watch out for unwittingly employing someone with no right to work in the UK – or worse, someone who has criminal intent – they also need to avoid turning their backs on asylum seekers with a legal right to work in this country and much to offer an organisation, including skills that may be hard to come by.

When screening, it is important to strike a balance. Extensive screening of potential and existing staff risks falling foul of the law, failing to respect individuals’ rights and treating people in a discriminatory manner. Conversely, organisations could miss out on people who could be a highly valuable asset. Tread carefully.

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